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Jul/Aug 2001 ē Fiction

The Marlboro Man Died of Heartache

by Ronald F. Currie, Jr.


The love I have for my sonólike a hurricane, it is elemental and blind, and sometimes terrible. It is fierce and instinctive, as it should be. It rages.

Like a lot of men, I used to dream about the war. I used to have bloody, jungle-hot nightmares and wake screaming and sweating in the dead of night. But itís been thirty years. I donít dream about the war anymore. I still have nightmares, but they come in the morning now, just before the alarm goes off. And I still wake screaming, but instead of just crying out incoherently, not making any sense, now I am saying, What do you want? What do you want from me? over and over again, and I feel my wifeís cool hand on my shoulder or my forehead and she mumbles, Just another dream, babe, and sheís still asleep, really, because sheís so used to me hollering at six in the morning that she doesnít even wake up anymore. Then I hear the birds singing outside the window, I see the morning light gathering on the walls and bedspread, and I realize where I am, and then Iím quiet again. Slowly my breathing calms down, to where it should be when Iím doing nothing but lying in bed. With my head cleared I try to remember what I was dreaming about, what it is that makes me scream and carry on like that in my sleep. But the images never come. The only thing I ever know for certain is who I was screaming at: my son, my only child, who is himself a grown man, eight years older than I was when I went to Vietnam.

Of course, he was not always a grown man, not always a wildly successful professor, the youngest ever to receive tenure at the university where he teaches, the man who at twenty-six created his own department, Veteranís Studies, with a focus on Vietnam-era vets. He did not spring from his motherís womb as the countryís foremost authority on the link between PTSD and the rate of incarceration among Vietnam veterans (combat soldiers only; he has no interest in supply and support troops, who, heíll tell you with a touch of disdain, made up the bulk of U.S. forces in Southeast Asia). He did not always have such detailed theories about what really happened to the USS Maddox in late July 1964. Until last year he was not able to argue successfully against VA doctors and prove a link between the use of defoliants such as Agent Orange and sky-high rates of infant mortality among children of Vietnam vets.

No. Once, not too long ago, he was just a boy. An odd, single-minded boy, granted, but just a boy, just my son.

When he was four, my son asked if Iíd ever killed a man.

I hit him, open-handed, across the face, hard enough to lift him off the floor. He came down hard on his back next to the television, his legs sprawled crazily in front of him. One of his little white sneakers actually flew off his foot and hit the floor a few feet away, coming to rest on its side. A flattened, dried-out wad of gum stuck fast to the sole of the sneaker. The gum had taken on the waffle pattern of the sole, and was still bright pink beneath a sooty layer of dirt.

I stood up from my easy chair, knocking over the TV tray with my dinner on it. The plate of tuna casserole made two slow-motion rotations in the air, then hit the carpet face-down and splattered in thick gray streaks dotted with baby peas. Things were falling and flying all over the place. My hands were clenched so tight that the nails cut into my palm and I sprained a tendon in my wrist, none of which I felt until much later. The boy stared up at me, his eyes wide, too frightened, I think, to cry.

I walked out of the room quickly, leaving him that way, flat on his back. As soon as I left his sight he began to wail. My heart broke, but there was nothing to do. My wife went to him, soothed him, quieted him with a fudgesicle and a picture book while she sopped up the tuna casserole with a damp washcloth.

Years later, on the night he received his Ph.D., my son asked me if this incident had really happened, or if it was just a fantasy, warped by the passing of time to resemble memory.

Did I ask if youíd kill anyone? he wanted to know. Did you hit me?

By this time he had asked me thousands of questions about my time in Vietnam, and I was so used to deflecting these questions, so practiced at slamming the door on that part of my past, that I was able to answer him without even thinking.

No, I lied, straightening his tie with a brisk conclusive pull of the knot. I donít know what youíre talking about.

The question I ask now is this: how does a four-year-old know enough that when he hears the word war he associates it with the word kill? More to the point, how does a four-year-old even know his father has been in a war?

But he did. Even at that age he knew, and wanted to learn more, wanted to learn everything. His lifeís passion would be to know all the things I needed to forget.

The spring of my sonís seventh year my wife and I were cleaning out the attic, shuffling through the debris of the past, forgotten but not discarded, the photos and old clothes, obituaries clipped from newspapers, the boyís report cards. I came across two faux-leather binders imprinted with the globe-and-anchor of the Marines. Inside the binders were my citations for the Silver Star and the Purple Heartóan account, in starched stilted military phrasing, of the day in October 1970 when I was nearly killed. The medals themselves were gone, cases and all.

What do you suppose happened to them? my wife said, but I already knew.

When I asked my son where they were, he said he would get them for me, but first he wanted to know some things about them.

Weíre not negotiating here, I told him.

Are you ashamed? he asked.

What kind of question is that?

If you werenít ashamed you wouldnít hide them in the attic, he said. Youíd put them out where people could see them.

Iím not ashamed, I told him. Iím just not particularly proud, either.

Fourteen hours, he said.

What?

Fourteen hours. Thatís how long you fought before you were wounded. Thatís what it says on those papers.

If thatís what it says, I told him.

Thatís a long time, he said.

Yes.

Were you scared? he asked.

I donít really remember, I told him.

Did it hurt? he asked.

What?

When you were shot. Did it hurt?

I looked at my son. His eyes were bright with naked curiosity. They were deep brown, like mine. His hair, his nose, his lips and jaw, all came from me. He had none of his motherís features. Looking at him was sometimes like looking at old pictures of myself. My mother, his grandmother, had said on several occasions she thought he was me, that somehow sheíd timewarped back to 1955 and I was a boy of seven again.

So quiet, she said. Such a solemn boy. Wouldnít say shit if he had a mouthful, that one. Just like you.

Did it hurt? he asked again.

I took my time, carefully measuring my response.

I didnít feel a thing, I told him finally.

Later that night, with the citations and the medals reunited on the shelf in the back of my closet, I said to my wife, Why does the boy ask me about these things?

She rolled over on her side of the bed and draped an arm across my chest. She had just showered. Her skin smelled like soap. Her breath was sweet with toothpaste.

Heís just trying to know you, she said. Thatís all.

But I wondered, and I still wonder.

I donít know. Things changed a whole lot in just a generationís time, because when I was a boy there was an unspoken agreement between fathers and their sons not to ask too many questions. Back then you came to the table every day with the same cards showing, and you worked your way around the things you kept from each other. It was a good arrangement in many ways. It saved everyone a good deal of embarrassment and awkwardness. After all, even within families, among people who are closer to each other than to anyone else in the world, you still have boundaries, those lines drawn between individuals. There are unknowable things, things that belong to fathers and not their sons, and vice versa, and back then we respected that. We preferred it, in fact. Let the mothers and daughters do all the prying and tearful confessing of emotions. As for us, we had work to do, and wars to fight.

So of course when I had my own son...I donít know. I thought he would be born knowing this silence, respecting it. Needing it. I guess I thought it was instinctive, automatic. Like, how do you know to breathe? You just do, right? No one has to tell you. No one has to keep reminding you to take a breath, for Christís sake.

But my son needed to be reminded that there were certain subjects that we, as father and son, did not discuss. The war was one of these subjects. And I tried to make him understand, through hints and insinuations, that it wasnít because my war was any worse than others. He thought that was why. Heíd heard some things, and thought I didnít want to talk about Vietnam because it was an unpopular war, with no clearly defined objectives, or because it was a particularly nasty, brutal war, full of booby traps and dead children and pointless anguish.

If I had spoken about it to him, I would have said: No. Those arenít the reasons. Youíve got it all wrong.

My son started asking for books on the war. My wife didnít see the harm, but I balked.

No, I said. No way. He doesnít need to know any more about it.

What about dinosaurs? I said to her. And airplanes? Arenít those the things nine year old boys read about?

Heís got an interest, she said. She shrugged her shoulders, eyebrows raised.

Itís beyond interest, I said. Obsession is the word.

Maybe you should encourage him to try other things, she said. Stuff you like.

So I signed him up for Little League, but he was slow bringing the bat around and struck out every time at the plate. The coach stuck him in right field, where he could do the least damage, but on the rare occasion when the ball was hit his way he was too busy daydreaming of tracer fire or diagramming tunnel networks in his head to field it.

When I suggested we build model planes together, my son picked out an F-4 Phantom, the workhorse fighter of both the Air Force and the Navy in Vietnam.

He turned his Ewok Village playset into a firebase, complete with artillery guns made with gutted Sharpie markers and miniature coils of razor wire fashioned from bread ties. Boba Fett, Han Solo, and a handful of Storm Troopers defended the besieged outpost against a platoon of Viet Cong Ewoks clad in black pajamas the boy made with my wifeís sewing machine.

Finally he was detained by the town juvenile officer for stealing volumes one through three of The Ten Thousand Day War from the public library. My wife and I picked him up, brought him home, and sent him to his room. Then we went to the kitchen, where we always convened to discuss household business, balance our checkbooks, hash out problems.

This is out of hand, I said to my wife. I sat at the table. My hands played absently with an advertising flier from the morning paper.

She took two cups down from the shelf above the sink. Heís going to keep at it, she said. Coffee? She poured herself a cup.

No thank you. Youíre not taking this seriously, I said.

Iím taking it very seriously. Our son was arrested today.

So what do we do? I asked. With my fingers I made little rips in the edge of the newsprint.

We can go two ways with this, she said, and I knew what she was getting at.

Fine, I said. But I pick out the book.

It was a hardcover copy of Tim Pageís Nam. Very little text, mostly pictures, full color. More than enough, I was certain, to give the boy a good look at what it really was like, to make him turn away from that part of my life.

A week later I wandered into his bedroom on some fatherly pretense and found the walls plastered with photos from the book. There was a shot of twin brothers on R&R in Guam, grinning with their body boards in the shallow turquoise surf. Another showed a soldier, pinned down by an ambush, taking a moment to eat some canned peaches. In a picture from the same firefight a large black Marine fired his M-60 into the jungle underbrush, his muscular arms slick with sweat. And in the photo above my sonís bed (the place of honor, it turned out) a young man posed in his flak jacket, holding an assault rifle in one hand and an undetonated VC mortar round in the other. He was smiling broadly, and his helmet sat crookedly on his head, covering one eye. He had the mindlessly joyful expression of one who has cheated Death, robbed It blind, in fact.

He was me.

You would have been dead, my son said as I stared, unable to believe my eyes. If that shell had exploded, you would have been dead, and I wouldnít be here.

When I recovered enough from the shock that I was able to move, I nodded and left the room without a word.

My son traced, as only he could, the origin and life of the dud mortar round. He did thorough, painstaking, amazing research. He was fascinated by the idea of a factory worker in Pennsylvania, maybe the guy responsible for installing fuses, looking away from his work long enough for just one shell to pass by him unarmed. This was the crucial moment, one which would reverberate through our lives like ripples in a pond. When the man turned back to the conveyor belt the shell had gone further down the line, now forever harmless for want of a simple piece of wiring. On the benign shell wentóprocessed further, packaged, loaded onto a cargo transport with hundreds of its deadly brethren. All the while it maintained a facade of efficient, mass-produced destructive power. Its exterior promised to explode into white-hot shards, to rend limbs and liquefy viscera. At no time did it betray the fact that it was harmless as an overripe melon.

On, on, over the Pacific the shell traveled. Finally it landed in Vietnam, where it was unloaded and then transported by helicopter to a firebase just north of Quang Tri, a firebase which would be overrun by a battalion of VC only two weeks later. The shell fell into enemy hands, but they too were fooled by its false promise of lethality.

And some time later, in August 1969, during a firefight in the mountains west of Da Nang, the shell was loaded into a mortar tube and launched into the sky, tracing a sharp ellipse through clouds of smoke and red dust and whistling back down to Earth, where it hit the ground between my legs with a dull thump. At that moment I was sprinting across a clearing to take up a suppressing-fire position. I froze in my tracks and drew a breath that spanned a century. I was standing upright, with no cover, staring at the half-buried shell while bullets cut the air and slapped at the wet leaves. Another hundred years passed while I exhaled, and still the shell did not go off.

Thus, my son pondered, his life, which would not begin for another six years, had been saved by an anonymous scatterbrained munitions tech somewhere in Pennsylvania. And he couldnít get over it, how all these tiny, seemingly inconsequential events had come together. How chance and coincidence and chronology and historical accident had aligned themselves in a mind-numbing, incomprehensible equation, the solution of which wasóhim.

Think about it, Dad, he said to me. Just think about it, he said, scrunching up his face to emphasize how amazing it all was.

But it had never occurred to me to consider any of this. I was just glad, then and now, that the son of a bitch didnít explode and separate the bottom half of my body from the top. Dumb fucking luck, was what I called it.

And now I have a confession to make.

When my son was sixteen, well beyond the age when parents need to know every detail of their childrenís lives to ensure their mental, physical, and spiritual well-being (the childrenís, that is), I did an unforgivable thing.

On its surface, this offense may seem, if not trivial, then at least somewhat insignificant in the overall scheme. Especially when you consider some of the things I did in the war, things which on their surface seemed horrible and even monstrous but which, given the circumstances, could be excused.

But this...well, what can I say? It stuck with me, and continues to stick.

Still, I felt like I didnít have a choice. I had become as interested in my sonóthis stranger, this young man who had suddenly and without notice replaced the boyóas heíd always been in me. And there were things I needed to know but couldnít ask. I had no right to the parts of him I wanted.

So I stole them.

I wonít make it worse by pretending that I went into his room looking for something else. I knew what I was after. And I knew where to find it, right on his desk, in plain sight among the books on the fall of Saigon and the battle of Dien Bien Phu, where anyone could pick it up, where he trusted no one in this house would.

I took his journal in my hands. I opened it, and this is what I read:

5/7

There was an article in todayís paper about the Marlboro Man. That icon of masculinity and slow suicide died of lung cancer. He died on his back, presumably with his boots off. He died a wasted 130 pounds.

My father has always reminded me of the M.M. Except for the horse. And the chaps. Obviously heís never worn chaps. But I always pictured him that way, getting up off the ground, slapping dust off his pants, wiping blood off his lip.

I tried to tell my father about him and the M.M. this morning at the table. But he just gave me that look, and I shut up. We sat in silence, and I was thinking about how when I was a kid I would picture him in Vietnam. In these fantasies he carried an M-60 slung across his shoulders, and there was blood and red dust, and he always won.

Except he didnít always win. There are two half-dollars of scar tissue on his back to prove that.

8/23

Vietnam molded my generation just as surely as it did his. I know this is true, even if most people my age arenít aware of it. Even if people my Dadís age wonít admit to it, they brought it home with them and passed it down. They canít decide to keep it for themselves now, because theyíve already shared every bit with their children, unawares. I know this is a fact, though I canít explain or substantiate, other than to say I feel it in my gut, where I feel all the things that are most true.

3/12

Have you ever seen a man like my father? Sure you have. Think of the baseball players of two generations ago, peering stern-faced out of black-and-white films with their bats on their shoulders, before free agency and billion-dollar contracts. Think of pinstripes and high socks and thick mustaches. Think of Williams and DiMaggio, men who hit and ran and caught with the easy grace of God, who inflamed the dreams of millions of boys sleeping with gloves under their pillows. Men who stopped playing baseball only long enough to fight for their country, hawking war bonds and crash-landing fighter planes behind enemy lines in places weíd never heard of. Men who unnerved other men with their prowess and silence. This silence, especially, is what defines these men, makes them unreal, superhuman, solidifies their positions as demigods. The only thing they were better at than baseball was keeping mum. And this in turn ensured that their stories, the full and true ones, could only be told after they were gone.

Sure, youíve seen men like my father.

He had taken what he knew of me, what little Iíd revealed, and made up the rest to create a myth.

I tell you, it is a terrifying thing to look through your sonís eyes and not recognize yourself.

So in one afternoon Iíd learned all I needed to know about how the boy saw me. I did not want to learn more. For weeks I walked around tense, queasy, hot-faced. I avoided him, taking overtime at work and going to bed early on the nights I was home. When we were in the same room at the same time his eyes followed me with more than the usual interest, somehow. They seemed to be appraising me. Under his lingering gaze I bowed my head and tried not to squirm.

My curiosity had been more than satisfied, but of course his went on, insatiable as ever. Only now he became bolder in his questioning. It was as if he knew what Iíd done and decided that because of my transgression all bets were off, that nothing was off-limits, that all my memories now belonged to him by rights. And he meant to have them. I fled before him, my hands over my head to ward off the hail of questions. I pleaded fatigue, sickness, ill temper, low back pain, pressing yardwork, unfinished novels, unmissable tv programs, anything at all to avoid answering him, to avoid the guilt of both past and present.

One day he cornered me, and asked a question, and everything came to a head.

It really was that simple.

What was the worst thing about the war? he wanted to know.

His eyes bore into me. He literally had me cornered, stuck in the dining room between one eggshell white wall and the mahogany hutch. The most inhumane, godawful, sickening thing? he said, taking a step closer. My back was flat against the wall behind me. I couldnít move any further away, badly as I wanted to. He took another step toward me, and now I could smell the Aqua Velva aftershave Iíd bought him for Christmas.

Tell me about cruelty, he said. Tell me how bodies smell rotting in the sun. I need to know, Dad. Tell me the worst thing. How you woke up bloodthirsty one day and it felt okay, even a little good. Tell me how you killed water buffalo and chickens for fun, and old women because you had to. Tell me how youíre different because of it. Tell me how it haunts you. Tell me the worst thing. I have to know. The one thing, above all others, you wish youíd never seen or heard or smelled or felt.

There was a pop, audible to me, just above and behind my right eye, and all the fear of my son disappeared as if down a drain, replaced by pure, unadorned rage. My hand shot out and seized him by the throat. His eyes, which were narrowed into inquisitive slits, went wide as serving plates as his feet left the floor. I swung around and slammed him against the wall hard enough to rattle the china in the hutch.

I could have told him about Kyle Adams, who carried an ammo bag of hard candies laced with iodine for the children who swarmed us whenever we went through a ville on patrol. Or about how I had to wash Manny Tavares off me after he tripped a Bouncing Betty outside Loc Nihn. Or how, three days after I earned my sergeantís stripes, I got two men mangled by a rigged artillery shell. Not killed, mind you, just mangled, so they could go through the rest of their lives without ever making love or breaking into a run when the urge hit them.

Any of these stories would have pleased my son.

But instead I leaned in real close so he could smell me, smell my breath and sweat, so the spit on my lips would fly and hit his face, and I said, The boredom, you little shit. The boredom was the worst. It never went away. Like the flies and the heat. You were bored shitless, and the next second, sometimes, you were dead, or missing a leg, or tucking your guts back into your belly.

Alright?

And he nodded a little, as much as he could with my hand clenched just under his chin. I let him hang there a moment longer, terrified, drawing breath in little squeaking gasps. Then I let go.

But nothing really changed. Anyone can tell you that nothing really does, ever. Those cathartic moments you read about, those instants of earth-rattling realizationóthe religious conversions, the sudden changes of heart from lifelong bitter hatred to tolerance, even loveóare the stuff of bad movies and romance novels. For those of us in this world, something dramatic happens, and for maybe a week youíre different than you were before. But then, usually sooner rather than later, you find that youíve gone right back to your familiar rutted behaviors without even realizing it. And life goes on, and on, more or less the same as always.

So it was with my son and I. For a while we walked wide circles around each other like a couple of tomcats, one aging but still dominant, the other young and not yet willing to try his luck. Time passed. My son grew older and taller still. Soon we forgot to be self-conscious around each other. By now he was in college, and had what he needed of me and my war. There were other sources of information for him now, other objects of obsession. And that was fine by me.

Except around this time was when the dreams started, and they havenít stopped since. For thirteen years Iíve been waking up just before dawn, punching the covers and screaming, What do you want? What do you want?

 

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